(WASHINGTON) — The Trump administration moved to remove Obama-era clean water protections intended to protect rivers, streams, wetlands and other bodies of water from pollution and runoff from industrial facilities and agriculture on Thursday, finalizing one of President Donald Trump’s signature campaign promises to farmers.
Under President Donald Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finalized a new definition of what is covered under federal clean water protections as a “Water of the United States” or WOTUS, replacing the broader language put in place under former President Barack Obama.
The EPA’s new rules will not protect streams that only flow during some parts of the year or after heavy rain and wetlands that aren’t connected to larger bodies of water.
But advocates argue that seasonal streams and wetlands can play a big role in controlling flooding and that removing protections could jeopardize that — or allow more pollution to flow downstream when it rains.
Farmers have long complained that the protections impose too many rules on areas that weren’t major bodies of water. Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt frequently called it government overreach to regulate a dry pond or creek bed as a “water of the United States.”
Last weekend the president called the old regulation “ridiculous” and “disastrous” and said it took away farmers’ property rights but that the administration’s new policy would benefit farmers, ranchers, and other industries.
“This rule gave bureaucrats virtually unlimited authority to regulate stock tanks, drainage ditches, and isolated ponds as navigable waterways and navigable water. You believe that? Sometimes, you’d have a puddle — a little puddle. And they’d consider that a lake. As long as I’m President, government will never micromanage America’s farmers. You’re going to micromanage your own farm, and that’s the way it should be,” Trump said in remarks to the American Farm Bureau Federation annual convention on Sunday.
A group of scientific advisors to the EPA have analyzed the Trump administration’s proposed rules as being “in conflict with established science” and say the change actually “decreases protections for our nation’s waters.”
Critics of the change cite that analysis and argue the Trump administration is ignoring the impact of streams that don’t flow year-round that can still have a tangible impact downstream in the event of heavy rain or flooding that would wash dirt, debris, or pollution into rivers or lakes that provide drinking water or support wildlife.
One of the biggest concerns is that fertilizer and pollution from agriculture could be released into areas that will no longer be protected under the new rule. Heavy rain events could also send any pollution downstream into larger bodies of water, affecting sources of drinking water or adding to toxic algae blooms.
“This is the first time that an administration has taken a step to dramatically reduce the scope, and by dramatically reduce we’re talking about potentially half of wetlands that were historically protected and up to 60% of historically protected stream miles,” Jim Murphy, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation, told ABC News.
The Trump administration argues that many states already have water protection rules in place that are stronger than the federal regulations and that the issue is better left to states to oversee in the best way for that area.
But Murphy said that relying on states to protect these areas will result in a patchwork of different laws and will further strain resources for states already struggling to keep up with water protections from agricultural pollution and stormwater runoff.
“A lot of those incentives and tools for states and EPA to clean those up will be gone so those pollution problems are almost certain to get worse,” he said.
He said the rule could also impact wildlife that rely on streams or wetlands for breeding or as a source of clean water, including duck or fish breeding areas that supply populations for hunting and fishing.
Environmental groups like the Southern Environmental Law Center have said they plan to file legal challenges to the rule.
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